By LIZ SIDOTI
The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 4:17 PM
CHICAGO -- Sounding every bit the presidential candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour used President Barack Obama's hometown as a backdrop Monday to blame the Democrat for enacting policies that "created economic uncertainty or directly hurt the economy" - and argue that he could do better.
"The policies embraced by this White House show little understanding of how our economy actually works," Barbour told the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce in a speech that previewed his likely campaign pitch.
Trying to draw a contrast, the two-term Republican governor of a state battered by Hurricane Katrina also boasted of his own record on economic growth and job creation in Mississippi, which has long been ranked at the bottom on personal income and education.
"We still have more to do in Mississippi. But we have made great progress and are laying a foundation for the future," he said.
Barbour, who is expected to announce a candidacy for the GOP nomination this spring, delivered the lunchtime speech in Chicago at the start of a week in which he'll travel to the early caucus state of Iowa and the fundraising hot spot of California.
The swing coupled with the recent hiring of key aides signals the increasing likelihood that Barbour, a veteran GOP operative and longtime Washington lobbyist, will enter the presidential field. It's all but certain to include former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman of Utah, as well as ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Barbour has spent months privately laying the groundwork for a campaign; Monday's speech provided the first glimpse of how his candidacy would look and sound.
He laid down a marker on the single biggest issue certain to shape the next election, sketched out a contrasting vision for the country's economic well-being against the Democratic incumbent and gave Republicans a taste of how he would run against Obama if given the opportunity as the GOP nominee.
"What I learned as governor of Mississippi is that `winning the future' doesn't start in Washington, D.C.," Barbour said, a swipe at the White House's latest slogan. "It won't be accomplished through government boondoggles like taxpayer-subsidized high-speed rail or other pet projects. It can't be achieved by having government take control of our automakers, financial sector, health care system and energy industry.
Rather, Barbour said: "What American needs today is a commitment to economic growth, not government growth: An absolute dedication to appropriately reforming entitlements coupled with an understanding that budget cuts must be matched by policies that promote growth and spread prosperity."
Obama inherited a woeful economy from Republican President George W. Bush, with widespread job losses. The bailout of the financial sector and automakers is widely considered critical to putting the nation back on a path to recovery.
In a message not only to the country at large but also to tea party activists clamoring for deep budget cuts and Republican leaders in Washington carrying out their bidding, Barbour added: "Our focus on fiscal responsibility must go hand-in-hand with policies that drive economic growth and job creation."
After two years of stepping up his criticism, Barbour offered arguably his most blistering critique yet of Obama's tenure: "Explosive spending, skyrocketing deficits, gargantuan debt, calls for record tax increases, government-run health care, out-of-control regulations and anti-growth energy policy."
Barbour also continued a tit-for-tat over energy policy, claiming the White House of wrongly taking credit for a boost in oil production in recent years. He said the increase was due to policies under the Bush and Clinton administrations and claimed that the Gulf of Mexico will produce 13 percent less oil this year on Obama's watch.
He also accused Obama of ignoring the growing national debt, and being AWOL on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"It can be done - but it must be led by a president who is actually committed to change," Barbour says, all but offering himself up as just the person for the job.
To that end, he sought to make the case that he's a can-do manager who practiced in Mississippi - a state that ranks behind many others on several measures - what he preaches now on how Obama can lead.
Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 23.1 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau in 2010. The median annual income is around $36,000 and 18 percent of its population has no health insurance.
Barbour, who as governor accepted a ton of federal money to help the state recover from Katrina, said he's been focused on growing the state's economy while running a jobs-friendly government that lives within its means.
He boasted of filling a $720 million budget deficit, caused by the recession, in two years without raising taxes; he didn't mention that he signed two cigarette tax increases in 2009.
He also noted that he refilled the state's cash reserve fund. It was largely depleted before he became governor but the state did not lack other financial reserves. It had millions set aside from settlement of a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies in the late 1990s; most of the tobacco money has been spent on Barbour's watch.
Barbour also talked about overseeing the passage of a sweeping tort reform law, and claimed that he addressed skyrocketing Medicaid costs by instituting management controls and oversight.
"People talk about cutting waste, fraud and abuse. We've done it," says Barbour.